Back in the days when I was teaching English Literature to undergraduates, we listened to the entire “Carmina Burana” as a partial entry into the mindset of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds. I still recall a tangential discussion that developed from this, in which I explained that in those days, it was usual for boys to sing and play the parts of women exclusively. And of course, their voices at a certain point would begin to lower and deepen, and then (in many cases) their singing careers were over, unless they chose to sing baritone, tenor, or bass parts (no more soprano for them!). And then I delivered the news which of course shocked many of my less well-informed students, that many a young man was altered (had his testicles removed) before his voice changed, in order to preserve his soprano voice for the rest of his life. But one of my students, a lover of music, was even better informed than I: he told us that he had heard that the last legal alteration done was performed in 1906.
In Kingsley Amis’s fascinating fantasy-satire The Alteration, the world of 1976 is transformed into a landscape in which the Catholic Church (which did alterations regularly to enable singers to perform church music and some secular music for the glory of God) has never left off ruling England through the Pope, and in which Protestants in some European countries are still called Schismatics (as are those Protestants in New England and what there is of America attached to it, very different from our actual America of today). It is still an Age of Faith, and science and electricity, though practiced in New England, are forbidden and frowned upon in Europe and England. There are, of course, fantasy/science fiction novels of the time, but they too are forbidden, and deal with such things as the electricity that Europeans cannot have. Elizabeth Tudor was never taken from her Catholic beliefs, Jean-Paul Sartre is a Jesuit priest, American sailing captains are people such as Edgar Allan Poe and the ships are gas airships, though the Wright Brothers are becoming well-known in America.
In the midst of this bewildering world of difference, we meet young Hubert Anvil, a chorister whose heavenly voice is the rumor of all of England and much of Europe once he sings in front of two castrati sent by the Pope from Rome. The decision is made by the Church and its officials to alter him, and he tries to make himself obedient to the course set for him, though not even all of the preceptors he knows from religious guidance are free of misgivings. But when he finds out and begins to truly understand that not only will he be unable to have sex with a woman, but will even be unable to find time to compose his own music, one of his most beloved activities, if he is a renowned singer, then he determines to run away. His young friends Decuman, Mark, and Thomas help him flee, and his older friend the American Ambassador van der Haag makes preparations to smuggle him away. At the last moment, however, something quite unexpected happens, and those who have previously prepared to help him escape are left wondering at the turns life sometimes takes: is a happening a mere coincidence, or “concurrence,” as they call it, a correlative event, near in time only and not in meaning, or is it the will of God (causative)? Perhaps you too will be left wondering about how humans interpret events, but even more you will perhaps have a sly, but somewhat nervous smile, at Kingsley Amis’s clever twist (“twist” being the “operative” word, to make a couple of bad puns you may not understand until you nearly finish the book). That’s the closest I’m going to get to a spoiler, and even if you are a good guesser, you should still allow yourself to enjoy this book for all of its many satirical points; the culprits may be different in this imagined world from the culprits we know of in our actual world (the Catholic Church is not, after all, a huge bugabear), but there are always those in power who abuse their positions. While this is not a feel-good book, it’s full of plottings and whimsy enough to keep you reading all the way through. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.